Westworld: A Storyteller’s Story

Normally I hold off on TV show reviews until its had a full season so I can review the entire season’s arc, but I’ve been enjoying Westworld so much that I just had to write something up about it. It has so many aspects to talk about. There are parallels between Westworld and video games, fascinating explorations about the nature of identity and consciousness, the difference between natural and artificial life… is there a difference at all? The list goes on. I might talk about all of them eventually, but the one thing I want to focus on is how Westworld tells such an amazing story while at the same time explaining exactly how they’re telling you the story.

Honestly, if you want to learn how to tell a good story, just listen to Anthony Hopkin’s talk about his characters and world. They should show this in creative writing 101. It’s exciting to see the mundane world of writing presented in such a unique way, and that’s why I’m going to spend the next 1500 words rambling on about how awesome it is.

I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a bare minimum, but there are still a couple, so reader beware. If you haven’t seen Westworld, I highly recommend it if you enjoy Scifi, Westerns, or just plain old good writing no matter what the genre.

Westworld:

A Storyteller’s Story

160819-westworld-s1-blast-07-1280.jpg

Westworld is a futuristic theme park unlike any that’s ever existed, one filled with artificial people that have been programmed to live out hundreds of branching storylines to create the illusion of a living world. It’s like a video game on a massive scale and taking place in real life (or at least that’s how it’s presented, though I have my doubts as to what’s really happening.) It’s a writer’s dream job, and yet a writer’s nightmare at the same time, given the level of complexity involved.

Unfortunately the lead writer of the Westworld narrative is an idiot; that is the narrative within the show’s setting and not the actual scriptwriters for the show, who I am convinced are probably geniuses. The head writer of the Westworld themepark wants to create a new story and how he pitches the story to Anthony Hopkins tells you exactly what kind of story it is.

“I have vivisection, self-cannabalism[…] this is the apex of what the park can provide. Horror, romance, titillation[…]”

His story has only one goal: to shock. He doesn’t talk about the characters, who they are or what their goals are, or the plot of his story beyond kill, kill, kill…and maybe some sex along the way.

The head writer of the narrative is what I imagine most screenwriters in Hollywood are like: he equates action, shock, violence, and gore with good writing. These are the people that write the sometimes entertaining, but often terrible and utterly forgettable crap that comes out: Independence Day Resurgence, every Terminator sequel after 2, every movie based on a board game, and all of Michael Bay’s movies. They write every game with a tacked-on single player, such as Call of Duty and Battlefront.

No.png
“No.” – Anthony Hopkins’ response to the new story. And my response to pretty much every story these days.

Yet, stories can be so much more. As Ed Harris’s Man in Black so eloquently put:

“…I think there’s deeper meaning, something hidden under all that, something the person who created it wanted to express. Something true.”

Those are the authors who create A Tale Of Two Cities, War and Peace, Of Mice and Men. The screenwriter who writes Schindler’s ListInside Out, Gladiator. The screenwriters behind TV shows like Breaking Bad, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and now Westworld. 

These are the writers who understand that blood, guts, sex, and violence are spices to be used in a story and not the story itself. They’re the writers who can write a great story without ever using any of those spices. Who, like Anthony Hopkins, yearn to create something truly alive whether it be through a book, movie, or video game.

early-hosts-420-90
Or possibly sentient artificial life.

“Do you know why your backstory is so mysterious? Because we never bothered to give you one.” – Anthony Hopkins to Teddy

When the show begins Teddy is a cipher of a character in the Westworld theme park, as far as characterization is concerned Teddy might as well be a two-by-four on legs.

Sadly this is true in most shows, secondary characters like Teddy are glossed over with no thought given to their backstory. They lack depth, and because they lack depth they’re not so much characters as simply part of the environment; something for the main characters to interact with. I didn’t feel it was any kind of tragedy when Teddy died the first time, he had no backstory. I didn’t know him. It’s why in the theme park no one cared enough to follow his storyline.

Yet when Anthony Hopkins gives him a backstory, suddenly Teddy becomes alive, and the patrons who once ignored him completely now feel compelled to follow him. They want to hear his story, experience it. That’s what a good backstory can do for a character.

This is exactly what I was talking about in my review of Luke Cage. I never felt like Diamondback had a backstory. Sure, he tells us the cliched story of his father leaving the bastard for the true born son, but that’s pretty much it. Where was he during all those intervening years? How did he come to possess the Judas Bullets? How did he become a criminal kingpin? Why does he quote bible verses when his father the preacher betrayed him, why didn’t that make him reject religion entirely?

We had the same problem with Corypheus in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Who was Corypheus before he stepped into the Golden City? Did he have a wife and children? Was he always a cruel manipulator? What was life like for him before his fall? As far as the audience is concerned, Corypheus simply popped into existence for the sake of the story.

Corypheus_Closeup
Apparently one of the most power magisters in the Tevinter Imperium has no historical record.

The problem is not that the writers never spelled out these characters’ histories for the audience, the problem is that I don’t believe even the writers knew their backstory. They simply came up with a name, personality, and loosely defined motive for their character and let them loose in the story. If they’d known their own character’s history, then elements of their backstory would have naturally crept into the story. A good writer will have all their major characters have their own personal history.

It doesn’t have to be a meticulous history stretching from birth to current events. It just has to be enough to convince the audience that the character has been living in this world, and didn’t just pop into existence for the sake of the story. Teddy’s backstory is a great example, he doesn’t start his monologue talking about life as a little boy, he keeps to the important parts. He was once a soldier, he fought Indians (perhaps reluctantly), he had a superior officer who disappeared and went nuts, and he had a near death experience with that same officer.

Boom, suddenly Teddy has dimension to him. A past who shaped the person he’s become. Think about any great character that you’ve loved, and you’ll find that you know a lot about who that character was before the story began:

  • Walter White’s job as a chemistry teacher and the missed opportunity of starting a conglomerate.
  • Han Solo’s career as a smuggler, recently with a price on his head.
  • Captain America’s life as a scrawny kid who wanted to help people but couldn’t.

In every case there was always a backstory, a history that showed our favorite characters had lives before the story began, something to suggest these characters were more than they appeared. Without that, we’re left with hollow characters that don’t operate so much as people in a story than mere window dressing for the setting and plot.

cottonmouth
Annoying, laughing window dressing.

It’s that kind of background, that character building, that leads to genuine moments like this:

“Are we very old friends?” Dolores to Anthony Hopkins

Now I’ve seen and read so many stories that when I hear this line, my mind immediately begins filling in the response. You know the ones:

“Yes, very old friends.”
“We were once.”
“A long time ago.”

Those, and variations on those, are the expected responses. And yet Anthony Hopkins’ response was completely unexpected.

“No, Dolores, I wouldn’t say friends. I wouldn’t say friends at all.” Anthony Hopkins to Dolores

I was grinning like an idiot during that entire exchange for a couple of reasons. First of all because it deepens the mystery surrounding Dolores, Anthony Hopkins, and Arnold. Secondly because it suddenly makes Dolores and Anthony Hopkins’ relationship more complex. It was also the incredible way in which the great Anthony Hopkins delivers the line, a truly masterful performance by one of the best actors in the world.

I wouldn't say that at all Anthony Hopkins Westworld.png
My God man, he has so much talent it’s pouring out of his eyes!

But mostly, I was grinning because it surprised me. It took an old, tired line and gave it a new shine, and more than anything else, that’s what makes this a storyteller’s story. It shows you that even the most well-worn and tired stories can be told in new and exciting ways.

As much as I remind myself that there is nothing new under the sun, and that every story has been told, I still find myself struggling on occasion with worrying if a story is worth telling. Westworld is a reminder that every story may have been told, but originality and enjoyment doesn’t come from the story itself, it comes from the person telling the story. The unique perspective of the writer, or writers, is everything. Everything can been new when you see it through someone else’s eyes.

“I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.”

A girl not wanting to be the damsel is almost as old as the damsel in distress itself, but seeing it through Westworld’s eyes makes it feel brand new. It makes me feel like I’ve never seen anything like this before. Everything in this artificial world filled with both science fiction and western tropes as old as the genres themselves, feels brand new.

westworld2.png
“Look back and smile at perils past.” – Walter Scott, a 300-year-old Scottish novelist made to sound brand new from the mouth of Anthony Hopkins.

If you haven’t seen Westworld and you want to write a story, you should watch it. If you haven’t seen Westworld and you enjoy good stories, you should watch it. If you enjoy reading my blog, you should watch it since I have a feeling I’m going to spend quite a bit of time talking about it.  This is a story that’s taking us somewhere and, as Anthony Hopkins might put it:

“They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”

I’m sticking around to see if I get a glimpse of who I could be as writer, but this show is so good that I might see a glimpse of something even more profound. I hope you’ll join me in taking that glimpse.

 

Advertisements

Westworld: Evil Pricks

I was in the process of writing an article about the awesome way Westworld uses its own story to teach people about good storytelling, when this line from last night’s episode reminded me of something I wanted to talk about for a long time.

“Why is it every time you come to this place you turn into such an evil prick?” William to his friend, HBO’s Westworld.

That’s the same question I’ve had about video game culture for quite some time, and I think it’s time I talk about it.

I used to play multiplayer games, specifically a game called Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries. I was a young teenager suffering from crippling depression, I had no friends at school or at home, I was tormented by both depression and the hormonal rollercoaster of puberty, and I felt like I had no future. To make a long story short, Mechwarrior and the friends I made playing it, made my life somewhat bearable. I’m still friends with many of the people I met playing Mechwarrior, even as we come to a mind-boggling 20 years since I’ve played it.

mechwarrior4_l27.jpg
This was cutting edge when I played it.

It’s those friends I want to talk about, because over the years I’ve watched them become evil pricks in video games. It didn’t start that way. Back when I first began playing, it was just good fun. Oh we made fun of each other, called each other gay, and joked about sex, typical young teenager stuff. But over the years my friends began to change.

The jokes became crueler, more personal. Those who lost competitive games against our team were mercilessly ridiculed, and then called cowards when they didn’t want to play us again, when it was more likely they simply didn’t want to play a bunch of rude petty people. The changes were subtle and at first I didn’t notice them.

Eventually Mechwarrior’s multiplayer died out, it wasn’t exactly the most popular game even in its heyday, and while we tried to play other games together, I lost interest. About ten years later though, a new Mechwarrior title arrived: Mechwarrior Online. Suddenly we were all back together again, and for the first few months it was like old times. And then I began to notice things.

My friends began openly trash talking, calling people faggots, ridiculing new people who asked questions, and following people they didn’t like from game to game specifically to “grief” them. Still, this had become such a normal part of online games that I was able to shrug it off. What I couldn’t shrug off, is what they would say to each other in private.

volume-mute
I began to love this symbol.

Several of my old friends were now referring to each other as n***ers, and I grimaced every time they said it. Mechwarrior Online was also a free-to-play game featuring microtransactions, where you paid to unlock certain mechs and equipment.

When my cash-strapped friends couldn’t afford these microtransactions or bought only the cheapest available, they called it “Jew.”

“I’m too Jewish to spend that much money.”

“I got the Jew option.”

I was shocked, and I told them: “Oh I’m sorry, apparently I stumbled into Nazi Germany by accident.” The joke was an icebreaker for me to voice my discomfort with using old antisemitic insults.

“You’re being too sensitive, they’re just words.”

They’re just words.

That’s the excuse I heard over and over again for all manner of utterly inexcusable behavior.

Words are powerful. The right words can help someone find hope in a hopeless situation, humor in a tragedy, and joy in a moment of despair. The wrong words can make someone cry, make them feel alone, and even drive them to suicide. My friends didn’t seem to understand that.

golden.jpg
And I was putting up with all this for a game that thought $500.00 qualified as a microtransaction. 

They began insulting me, and not the friendly jibes and insults that people exchange. They told me how bad I was in the past, to stop being bad during games, and stop being so emotional about the toxic conversations they’d have. This poisoned not only my relationship with them, but also in how I perceived our previous relationship. Did they ever actually like me? Was I really that bad in the past?

My friends used to have a nickname for me when I was young “tightpants”, and I never understood the reference. I thought perhaps it was a reference to my weight, which would have been fine because I was constantly joking about that myself. After we began playing Mechwarrior Online they began to refer to me as “tightpants” again, and this time I asked what that meant.

Turns out whenever I spoke on comms, I had a high pitched voice, and apparently I still did. Except now they weren’t so kind about it.

“Jesus, didn’t your balls ever drop?” They once asked me.

That, unfortunately, got to me. I asked my best friend if I had an unnaturally high voice, and she hedged saying she didn’t really notice. Which only convinced me it was true. For a few weeks there I actually tried lowering my tone of voice while talking to people, until I noticed it was just getting me strange looks from people. I’m also not as insecure as I was when I was young, and after a couple weeks I figured that even if I did have a high voice, it wasn’t like there was anything I could do about it. So why worry?

game-thrones-season-6-lord-varys
Besides, Varys has a high voice and he’s bitchin’. 

I continued playing with my friends, because between their occasional bouts of cruelty, we still had a good time together. Then one day we were playing, and having a grand old time. I remember I was laughing so hard my ribs were actually aching. I was trying to talk over my laughing to convey some information about the enemy team when:

“Shut the fuck up!” Someone yelled over the comms.

This person wasn’t one of my friends, but he was a talented gamer, he outranked us all when it came to talent. That alone was enough to let him play with us. It wasn’t a friend yelling at me, but they also did nothing to discourage it.

I disconnected and didn’t talk to them for about six months, until one of them decided to contact me on Skype and ask how I was doing. They asked me what had happened, and I simply joked around with them saying that I’d been asked to shut up and was just following the order to the letter. The reality was even simpler: I play games to have fun and relax. The moment that stops happening, the game is over. Yet I kept coming back to these people, because I’d known them for nearly fifteen years! These were the friends that kept me alive in the darkest period in my life, and I couldn’t simply write them off.

One of my friends, whom I’ll refer to as DV, I counted as among my closest friends.

Tyrion-varys-meereen.png
If I was Varys, he was definitely Tyrion.

When I was thirteen/fourteen, I was absolutely infatuated with a girl I knew. Being a moronic teenager I lost all perspective and restraint, pronouncing my undying love for a girl I barely knew, which of course scared her into never talking to me again.  That sent me into probably the darkest depression I’ve ever experienced. At the same time DV, who was slightly older in his late teens, was having problems with his girlfriend constantly dumping him and taking him back. We were both hurting and we helped each other through it by talking about our mutual girl problems.

“Oh back from your emo trip? Show me on the doll where [the guy who yelled at me] touched you.” That was how DV greeted me, the man who I once would have done anything for. If I was rich and he needed money, I would have written him a blank check, that’s how deeply I trusted and respected this man. He was one of my closest friends.

And I no longer recognized him.

maxresdefault
I felt like Bruce Willis in Surrogates when he first steps out into a world populated by mechanical dopplegangers. It’s seriously a good movie, and I encourage you to watch it if you haven’t.

The boy who had once been my friend would never have been so casually cruel to me, so indifferent to my feelings. A few weeks later GamerGate happened, and I’ll spare those of you who don’t know about it the indignity of hearing about this stupid event. The cliff notes is that a girl made a video game and one of the reviews may not have been entirely without bias. The dumbest and cruelest elements of the gaming world took this as an invitation to threaten her life, threaten her with rape, post her address, phone number, and work location to everyone on the internet. They made her life a living hell for years. I haven’t looked into it, but I’m sure she probably still gets harassed.

And my friends supported it.

Each

And

Every

One

I have no explanation as to how this happened. Some of my friends were now married, DV even had children, and they were either cheering on the harassers (perhaps even taking part) or tacitly approving of it by offering excuses for turning a woman’s life into a living hell over a video game. When, and how, did my friends turn into these people?

westworld05
How do otherwise decent people turn into this guy?

It can’t just be an effect of video games. I ran over crowds of people in Grand Theft Auto; mowed down innocent civilians in Postal; tortured and murdered people in the cruelest ways imaginable in Manhunt. I’ve committed every war crime and atrocity imaginable across twenty years of gaming, but I never turned into the evil pricks my friends became.

It can’t be their social and economic situation. One of my friends was working at a fortune 500 company and would show us pictures of his fancy new cars. Others were working a variety of jobs with varying levels of success. Some were married or had girlfriends. Hell, DV was working as a cop in London with three kids and a wife. If anything, I was the one who fit the stereotype: a fat, single guy who hadn’t had a girlfriend in years, no job and no prospects.

Maybe it was because I had depression, and I knew the kind of damage words could inflict. I know what it’s like to feel like the world is against you, to feel like your fate is suffer constant pain. Did that give me an empathy my friends lacked?

Mixing.png
Were they missing an ingredient in their soul?

I don’t play multiplayer games anymore, because the unfortunate truth is that my friends are the rule. I’m the exception. Go into a multiplayer game and you’ll find a cesspool of insults, negativity, and downright cruelty.

As seen here in a great comic by The Oatmeal

That’s not to say I think all gamers are horrible. In fact I think the vast majority are just like me. The problem is that, like me, they can’t be bothered to deal with assholes when they’re trying to relax. So people leave, like I did. They stick to single-player games, or maybe they find a new hobby all together. Hell maybe that’s why games like Candy Crush are so popular, you don’t have to put up with racist misogynists to play Candy Crush.

So the decent people leave, and that just leaves the assholes in an echochamber of assholes. All they hear is the same toxic drivel they spout, and it becomes normal to them. It becomes a cycle of constant abuse, and it becomes so normal that they don’t even realize their language is abusive. Last time I was in a multiplayer game, someone threatened to rape my sister (I’m an only child).

images
My sister.

 

And the eerie thing about it was that he didn’t say it with hate or anger in his voice, it was a reflex. I killed him in a video game, and his immediate instinct was to launch into threats of sexual violence. He said it in such a way that I’m pretty sure if I could have been bothered to confront him about it, he wouldn’t have even comprehended the problem. Just like William’s friend in Westworld, who couldn’t understand why William calls him evil.

I still talk with my friends occasionally on Skype, because when they’re not talking about video games we still have great conversations about politics and life. One of them discovered they had kidney cancer, the same disease that killed my father, and we commiserated over how shitty cancer is. If I ever met them in real life, I’m sure I’d see the great friends that I once knew. But I don’t play with them anymore, because like the man said in Westworld: 

“Why does coming here turn you into such an evil prick?”

I wish I knew the answer to that, and I’m hoping that maybe through Westworld‘s exploration of this frightening transformation people undergo, that maybe I will find the answer.